The Invisible Woman

Thanks to DNA testing, Sally Hemings is fully part of national history. Scott McLemee considers the work of a scholar who fears the real story will be whitewashed.

February 21, 2007

Ten years ago, the University of Virginia Press issued what turned out to be a very well-timed book , Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School. In late 1998 came the results of a DNA test showing a match between descendants of Hemings and of Jefferson -- corroborating the story (first put in the public record by an anti-Jeffersonian journalist in 1802) that the author of the Declaration of Independence had sired a number of children by one of his slaves. One part of the “American controversy” referred to in Gordon-Reed’s subtitle was over.

But not all of it was. The real subject of the book was not the question of whether Jefferson and Hemings had (as the preferred expression nowadays would call it) a relationship. Rather, Gordon-Reed’s attention was focused on how historians had, over the years, gone about weighing the evidence, one way or the other. She argued that they often seemed prone to examining the record with a certain implicit syllogism in mind: “No decent white person could be involved in an affair with a black slave. Jefferson was a decent white person. Therefore, Jefferson could not have been involved with a black slave.”

That did not mean that Gordon-Reed herself was inclined to denounce Jefferson. In 1994, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York convened a mock trial, presided over by William Rehnquist, to determine whether Jefferson’s contributions to American society were overshadowed by instances of hypocrisy. “When it came to a vote,” Gordon-Reed recalled, “my husband and I, along with the overwhelming majority of other members of the audience, voted in favor of Jefferson.”

But as for the historians who wrote about Jefferson – well, that was another matter. She found a strong, recurrent tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to 19th century sources that pointed to either Samuel or Peter Carr (Jefferson’s nephews) as the father of Hemings’s children. By contrast, a document from 1873 by Sally Heming’s son Madison that Jefferson was his father was routinely dismissed. And so was the testimony by Israel Jefferson, a former slave at Monticello who served as a butler and recalled that the president “was on the most intimate terms” with Sally Hemings. “In fact,” he said, “she was his concubine.”

In short, statements from African-American sources were treated by Jefferson scholars as somehow intrinsically unreliable – a point made especially clear in the case of Merrill Peterson’s book The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Oxford University Press, 1960). One source of the claim that Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves was, he wrote, “the Negroes’ pathetic wish for a little pride and their subtle ways of confounding the white folks.”

And so for decades the majority of Jefferson scholars demonstrated their staunch refusal to be taken in by subtle Negroes. Gordon-Reed’s book made this much harder. “We know now,” she wrote, that “Jefferson was at Monticello at least nine months before the birth of each of Sally Hemings’s children.” Here one sees Gordon-Reed’s forensic skills in action: She makes this point  based on the minutely detailed chronology reconstructed by Dumas Malone, a Jefferson biographer who rejected Madison Hemings’s claim that the President was his father.

Reviews of Gordon-Reed’s book began appearing in the major historical journals in 1998, just before the DNA findings were announced. And most took her analysis – both of the documentary evidence and of the biases often exhibited by scholars – as a virtuoso performance. The days were coming to an end when Joseph Ellis could refer to the Hemings story as a “tin can tied to Jefferson’s reputation” by political opponents in 1802 that “has rattled through the ages and pages of history books ever since.” It turns out that Ellis was actually hearing the death rattle of an old consensus.

But the lead essay in the most recent issue of Reviews in American History suggests that the collapse of former presuppositions has not, in itself, created an advance in historical understanding. “In Search of Sally Hemings in the Post-DNA Era” by Mia Bay, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, examines some of the recent scholarship only to find that Hemings “is rarely considered in light of what we know about the history of slavery – and experiences of slave women in particular.” In consequence, “a new but still profoundly ahistorical Hemings figures prominently in several recent works on Jefferson.” What ends to disappear from some accounts “is nothing short of her status as a slave.”

“Hemings is largely a cipher,” notes Bay, “a blank slate on which any story can be written.” We have no documents by her. (In this regard it bears quoting Israel Jefferson, the butler at Monticello. He recalled the president telling General Lafayette that, yes, it might be convenient to have some slaves who could read, but “to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation.”)

We do know that her complexion was light. Her father, John Wayles, was also the father of Martha Wayles Jefferson, who died in 1782. (In other words, Sally Hemings was actually Thomas Jefferson’s sister-in-law, though not by the standards of the day.) She was 13 or 14 when she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly to France to join him; and by the time she returned to the United States, two years later, she was pregnant. The extended Hemings family constituted roughly one third of the slave community at Monticello. Most of them were sold off following Jefferson’s death in 1826, but Sally was “given time” by his heirs – a sort of unofficial manumission that allowed her to remain in Virginia. She died in 1836.

“Her life falls between social and political historiographies,” writes Bay in her essay, “two literatures rarely in dialogue with each other.” And in this twilight zone, it seems, some writers are  imagining all kinds of stories in which Sally Hemings – legally defined in her own lifetime as a piece of property – enjoyed subtle power and definite agency.

The most jaw-dropping instance Bay cites is E.M. Halliday’s book Understanding Thomas Jefferson, (HarperCollins, 2001). Pointing out that Sally Hemings’s mother, Betty, had enjoyed a certain degree of upward mobility through sexual relations with John Wayles (that is, with Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law), Halliday speculates that “it is hard to believe that Betty Hemings failed to give her lively, pretty daughter advice on how to behave toward Master Jefferson upon entering his household.” With a teenage girl training her seductive arts on him, the poor widower never had a chance, Halliday argued.

Considerably less risible is Joshua D. Rothman’s Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Historians have given it acclaim as a subtle analysis of how the reality and ubiquity of interracial sexual liaisons were dealt with by an antebellum culture that officially forbade them.

As Bay sees it, however, Rothman’s chapter on Jefferson and Hemings is just a little too subtle about “the admixture of consent and coercion at play in their liaison.” The idea that a teenage slave girl had any consent to give in a sexual relationship with her master is perhaps taking voluntarism too far. “Sally did not have to return to Virginia with Jefferson at all,” according to Rothman, since “she surely could have gained emancipation with a small amount of effort.”

That she didn’t – that, instead, she returned to Monticello and remained in an intimate relationship with Jefferson that lasted for decades – certainly suggests a complicated arrangement. But not one in which the girl had any autonomy, however much we may want to give her agency ex post facto.

“What other options did Hemings actually have?” asks Bay. “She had no property, had just begun to master French, and had less then two years experience as a lady’s maid. No evidence suggests she could read or write....A lawsuit would have been a daunting prospect for her, as would have been the prospect of living on her own in France.”

The latter would also have meant being cut off from her family. Bay complains that Jefferson scholars have largely ignored both “Hemings’s ties to a vast network of blood relatives and the issue of what that network might mean to her given the status accorded to kinship among enslaved African-Americans.” What is emphasized instead are Heming’s white blood ties: “Now that Hemings is a historical figure,” writes Bay, “she seems to be changing color.”

Interestingly enough, one piece of evidence long cited as proof that Jefferson would not have had a sexual relationship with Hemings now returns with a slightly different spin. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1789), Jefferson made disparaging remarks about black people of sufficient virulence that David Duke has quoted them from time to time. Jefferson also expressed horror of miscegenation. 

For old-school Jeffersonographers, this was proof that the founding father was, so to speak, permanently inoculated against Mandingo fever. As Mia Bay shows, some scholars now quote the same passages, but draw a different conclusion: It can only mean that, as far as Jefferson was concerned anyway, Sally Hemings wasn’t really black.

The simple, depth-free notion of the human heart that deduction implies is not worth disputing. I’m not sure argument is even possible. Most adults understand that the faculty of verbalized ideation operates in one part of the body, while sexual appetite is located elsewhere. But in thinking about the founding fathers, some kind of regression often takes place. The adult world view disappears. (That is just as true of someone who would see Jefferson as a depraved monster, of course, as it is of someone who can’t imagine him as an ordinary hypocrite.)

Bay ends her essay with a quotation from Jefferson that is, on the whole, as balanced and incisive as any comment on the topic could be. It appears in Notes on the State of Virginia, and was published around the time Sally Hemings was bearing their first baby. “The whole commerce between master and slave,” he wrote, “is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions and the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” he wrote. “Our children see this and learn to imitate it....The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”


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